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An Early Take on New Jersey’s Gubernatorial Race 2013

There are two gubernatorial races this year and both involve states currently represented in those state’s highest office by Republicans. One is term-limited- Bob McDonnell in Virginia- and one is not- Chris Christie in New Jersey. This article will concentrate on New Jersey.

To assert that current GOP Governor Chris Christie has a high profile nationally and within the party is an understatement. Some may argue that this high profile is unwarranted or undeserved. This point can be argued until the cows come home, but there is one commonality among criticisms and that is the obligatory weight references. Yes, Chris Christie is a huge man and overweight…and Bobby Jindal looks like a match stick with an eating disorder, but what does all this have to do with policy? Liberals and conservatives who make these references have much in common with the silly New Jersey teacher union bumper stickers that say “Starve Christie.”

If anyone goes to any conservative website or any liberal website right now, chances are you will find an article critical of Christie. He certainly shows equal opportunity when royally pissing people off no matter which end of the political spectrum people happen to be. Having watched his rise to power in the state of New Jersey, it comes as no surprise to the people he governs. As a federal prosecutor, Christie went after Republicans and Democrats and everything in between with equal zeal when it came to corruption. But the fact is he served two very successful terms as federal prosecutor in New Jersey under President Bush and no one can deny his record. He never lost a case no matter who the defendant was.

Let us first look at the objections to Christie from those on the Right. At one time, he was the darling of conservatives for his no-holds-barred approach to fiscal management. He took on the public worker unions in the state, especially the powerful teacher unions that used successive Democratic administrations as door mats. When this first happened, a teacher told me, “He doesn’t know how powerful the teacher’s union is,” to which I replied, “You obviously don’t know Chris Christie.” But, the criticisms came hard and fast in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy which hit New Jersey in late October, 2012. The original criticism was his alleged “cozying” up to Obama when the president toured the damage. In reality, this “cozying up” was nothing more than the Governor of New Jersey acting like a Governor in the face of a natural disaster. Had Hurricane Sandy struck Louisiana, would Bobby Jindal turn around and/or shun Obama? Or would Governor Scott in Florida done the same? Instead, the criticism was the result of two things: Christie’s high national profile, and it was two weeks from the election. If this had been any other Republican governor in a non-presidential election year, I doubt the critcism would have come as hard and as fast.

Following up, Christie then bashed Congress when they delayed a hurricane relief bill. I fully understand the objections to this original bill. I have written previously about it and decried the wasteful pork and non-Hurricane Sandy-related spending. Regardless, Christie was again doing what a Governor is supposed to do- look out for his state. Perhaps his delivery was a little over-the-top, but that is Chris Christie.

The latest nail in his coffin is his acceptance of expansion of Medicaid in New Jersey under Obamacare. Originally, he decided against it and the conservative press was abuzz with headlines like “Another Governor Rejects Obamacare.” But, if you read the entire statement at the time, he rejected it until it was further studied and he explicitly reserved the right to change his mind as certain other factors came to light. To many on the Right, this is nothing short of conservative apostasty. At various times on this and other conservative sites, writers have sung the praises of Rick Scott, Rick Snyder, John Kasich, Susanna Martinez, Brian Sandoval or Jack Darymple. Christie is simply another Republican governor- like those listed above- who have accepted this aspect of Obamacare in the interests of what is best for his state. Is Rick Scott or Jack Darymple now suddenly less conservative also? I think some of the fault for this problem lies at the feet of conservatives themselves. Christie was elevated to superstar status before he had even accomplished anything in New Jersey because of his style. The higher he was elevated, the greater the fall from conservative grace and it is this which is likely fueling the conservative angst over Chris Christie.

Over on the Left, Christie is not exactly embraced although by some comments and editorials here and elsewhere one would think that we have the second coming of Charlie Crist. For example, the Left will regularly trot out their academic findings and autopsy of the New Jersey economy. The state ranked 47th in GDP growth in 2011. When one sees “rankings,” these are comparisons which are relative, but not real. There would be a problem if under Christie there was zero or negative growth in state GDP, yet there WAS growth. Admittedly, compared to other states, it was not great, but there was growth regardless.

More troublesome for Christie is the fact that New Jersey’s unemployment rate remains stubbornly well above the national average. This was before Hurricane Sandy, so a natural disaster cannot be blamed. They also point out that since Christie assumed office, jobs have left New Jersey. Actually, jobs were leaving well before Christie became Governor. If anything, under Christie the rate of jobs leaving the state has decreased, but like the GDP argument in reverse, jobs ARE still leaving the state so there is work to be done there. New Jersey was perenially ranked near the bottom of most lists when it came to the business environment. As a former business owner in New Jersey, I can attest to that and this was when McGreevey and Corzine held the office. They decry the fact that Christie vetoed, as promised, a hastily passed millionaire tax which really reached into the pockets of non-millionaires. They hold up the fact that New Jersey has one of the lowest gasoline tax rates in the country and it has not been raised since 1988. Christie’s response? “Can’t we be number one lowest in some tax?”

Their current rant claims that Christie is for business and against the common folks because he opposes an increase in the state’s minimum wage. Where have we heard these criticisms before? Despite the obvious economic arguments against raising the minimum wage, Christie did leave the option of an increase open in the future and even established some conditions for approving an increase which the Democratic legislature in Trenton has outright expressed their objections and rejection of those conditions. Then they claim he cheered the firing of public workers when he was merely stating that the state employee payroll had been trimmed, and he scuttled much needed infrastructure improvements. That improvement was the tunnel project from New Jersey into New York City that was already running huge cost over-runs which New Jersey, not Washington DC and not New York, would be on the hook for. This claim that it would improve the quality of life for people on both sides of the tunnel deserves one response: Boston’s Big Dig!

One area where they may have an inkling of an argument is in the state government’s support of the Revel Casino in Atlantic City. This project had financial problems before the state intervened to bring its construction and opening over the finish line. The state essentially granted over $250 million in tax abatements. This case illustrates the problem when the government- ANY government- gets involved in the free market and picks winners and losers. Here, the state picked its winner- Revel- which has turned out to be something far short. Today, the place is in bankruptcy a year after opening.

Now, despite all these criticisms from both sides, few of which are really justified, there is one unmistakable fact. One would be hard-pressed to find a sitting governor with an approval rating in their state as high as Christie’s right now. And that cuts across party lines but is especially significant with independents. No doubt, these polls may have scared Newark mayor Cory Booker away from a gubernatorial challenge. With approval ratings near 70% and 61% of registered voters indicating they would give him another term, Democratic challengers face a daunting task. In fact, the latest polls show a majority of households with a public worker union member now supporting a Christie reelection. In these same polls, only about 40% of respondents approve of his handling of education and a little over 30% approve of his property tax reforms so there is work to be done here. From the sounds coming from Trenton, education reform looks to be his priority this year besides the mundane task of balancing the state budget. A lot of his high approval ratings are attributable to his handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy so one could surmise that all that “cozying up” to Obama is paying off politically in New Jersey and what better way for a Republican Governor to win in a blue state than by “using” a Democratic president?

As 2013 wears on, Christie’s popularity will likely wane somewhat as memories of the hurricane wane. It is likely that the then-presumptive Democratic front runner, Cory Booker, realized that going up against Christie in 2013 would have been a losing proposition and a scar on his political career. Regardless, this writer firmly believes that Booker would have made a formidable opponent and the race would have been close. Instead, the likely opponent will be Plainfield-based state senator Barbara Buono. She has made a name for herself in the state as head of the state senate budget committee. She has also apparently rankled some feathers within the Democratic Party in New Jersey with some of her votes in the state senate and on that committee. As she puts it, she marches to the beat of what her constituents want, not necessarily what the Democratic Party wants.

Still, her recent appearances have all the hallmarks of a typical Democratic political strategy- gain union support, endorsements and money and revert to class warfare tactics by pitting the alleged 1% against “the rest of us.” Recently, with Booker by her side, she toured Newark and talked about Christie’s policies towards cities as being akin to the disenfranchisement of urban dwellers to the advantage of rich suburbanites. This is veiled, if not overt, class warfare. For his part, Booker’s attachment to Buono is tricky since he has worked closely with Christie on education reform efforts. For his part, he instead stated that he would support Buono based on the gay marriage issue, women’s health, and the environment. In short, as the campaign truly fires up, we can expect to see advertisements about how Christie had teachers fired with crying children in the background, of women being turned away from Planned Parenthood clinics, and gay couples being treated as second class citizens. We can expect to see ads about how the rich get away with murder while the poor “urban dweller” is left to fend for himself amid massive state budget cuts to social services. That is, of course, if anyone survives in the state because despite having the strictest and most draconian gun laws in the country, Christie has not elevated MORE gun control to the top of his agenda according to some Democrats in the state.

However, Buono will be running against some very stiff headwinds. Right now, Christie is not taking anything for granted and is basically running on cruise control. It is doubtful he will play it this safe as Election Day nears. To truly understand the dynamic, one needs to be a state resident just as I really could never understand, for instance, the political dynamics of California beyond what I read from folks here and elsewhere. New Jersey is known for its corruption at all levels of government from school boards up to the governor’s office. Whether the Governor was McGreevey or Corzine or Florio or even Whitman, corruption seems to be the norm and accepted modus operandi in Trenton. It is difficult to change that culture, but Christie has largely succeeded in four short years. One need only look at the brouhaha created when he took on the entrenched public worker unions upon assuming office and their sweetheart pension and health care deals. He has a right to tout the fact that the state payroll is the lowest it has been since the Whitman administration, although the left describes this as being proud of firing public workers. Those are not all firemen or police officers losing jobs, but Trenton bureaucrats. Eliminating the useless Office of Climate Change (or whatever it was called) and withdrawing from the Northeast Interstate Compact has saved the state millions of dollars. He has, through caps on property tax increases, forced municipalities to be more conscious of how they spend dollars rather than the knee jerk property tax increases every year. Obviously, given the level of special interest entrenchment in Trenton, four years is not long enough to root out union favoritism by government.

That is why I believe that although Buono will run a campaign out of the Obama/Axelrod/Ayers class warfare textbook, there are still enough politically sane people in New Jersey to return Christie to office. The onus of responsibility for winning falls on Christie since he is not running against an ethically-challenged person like Jon Corzine. Conversely, neither is Buono. She will be running against a very popular Governor. New Jersey is one of only a handful of states that increased their vote for Obama in 2012 over his 2008 performance. That is good enough for a at least a few points at the end, but Christie, at this point, should win with about 54% of the vote. Although that may be too close for comfort for some, in New Jersey that is a rather stellar performance for a Republican in a statewide election.

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